Getting pleasantly bitten: a personal introduction to CoBrA

I lived in Copenhagen for nearly three years before moving to New York. And yet, when my good friend, DC-based painter John Blee, asked if I could locate a Cobra print in Denmark, I was at a loss. I thought of snakes. Then I Googled, and was embarrassed by my art history mishap.

Though often colorful, full of movement, and capable of provoking unexpected emotion, CoBrA is no snake. A fusion of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, it’s a mid-1900s avant-garde art movement. There’s a CoBrA museum outside of Amsterdam (I’ve sadly never ventured outside Amsterdam for museums: a mistake). If you can’t hop on a train right now, click through the museum site for a virtual tour.

John had seen works by one of CoBrA’s Danish representatives, Mogens Balle’s, and had fallen in love. I was on my way to spend a summer in Copenhagen and would be on a mission to find the etchings and lithographs he craved. He was amazed to discover that the works could be purchased for a mere 200 Euros a piece – simply because, through the random forces that assign greater celebrity to one artist and not another, Balle is a lesser-known CoBrA artist. His works, however, are phenomenal. Colorful, playful, full of movement and life.

The Balles took me on a bit of an unexpected – and unforgettable – wild goose chase. Who’d have thought that the quest for these etchings would bring me to a Northern Danish village so small, the GPS didn’t know any of its street names. I passed gorgeous pastures and rolling hills on the way there. Then I nearly accidentally drove through it. I circled back (thrice), hopelessly poking at the GPS, until a guy hopped out into the one main street and asked me who I was looking for. I started saying the art dealer’s name and he started walking me up a tiny street before I’d gotten to the last name.

The dealer, an extraordinarily friendly man with perfect English, lives in a large country-style house, surrounded by greenery and an aura of a century past. I felt I’d been transported back in time and half expected to see a scene straight out of Girl with a Pearl Earring, something like a peasant girl carrying buckets of water from the well. I was invited into a charming garden for tea and biscuits the dealer had baked himself. His wife came out to join us. And for an hour, we sat in the sun and chatted about painting and travel and how a successful dealer from Copenhagen had chosen to live in this remote little corner of Scandinavia.

As he wrote himself later, “We live in a generous world that to our garden in a remote corner of northern Jutland brings a nice Russian/American woman for a cup of coffee and a nice chat because a 3rd person – an American artist – has seen an exhibition in a dutch museum. Had it been a side plot in a movie one might have found it slightly artificial.”

In his home, I found Chagall prints side-by-side with finger paintings done by his grandchild. It was so beautifully unpretentious, perhaps in a way that can only happen in the humility-loving, family-focused Denmark. There was something surreal and idyllic about the place. As I drove away, I looked in the rear-view mirror, feeling that I was leaving one of Murakami’s dreamscapes, half expecting the town to dissipate into thin air. I wish I’d taken photos to share here, but at the time I felt I couldn’t disturb the serenity.

When I wonder to myself why I can’t let go of the idea of working in the arts, encounters like these are always my final answer. I returned from the trip full of an energy that only arts people seem to be able to generate. I’d learned about the fascinating life of a man who became an art dealer before he’d even turned 20. I discovered a new movement and saw dozens of works I wanted to take home with me (like those of Zao Wou Ki – abstract, fluid prints that quite literally imprint themselves in your memory after just one viewing – see for yourself here – and below.)

To deliver the prints to their new owner, I met John at the MoMA for a museum trip that was unlike any I’d ever taken before. But that’s a story for another post.

I will say this: if you can, always see art with an artist you greatly admire – preferably one with an impossibly good memory for anecdotes about the creators of the work you’re seeing. When the people around you stop to listen, you’ll know you’re with the right guide.

5 thoughts on “Getting pleasantly bitten: a personal introduction to CoBrA

  1. Great storytelling. A perfect blog post. Congratulations and keep going!

    Makes me want to visit the Danish dealer…

  2. Pingback: Q&A with John Blee « Art Wrap

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